Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Gift Of Flight

When I was a little guy, going on my first Christmas, my dad lifted me high over his head on the escalator down to the main floor at Macy’s. I wasn’t scared for a minute. I smiled and watched the world float by, around and beneath me. I thought I was flying.

And my father laughed, the way he always did, like a rushing stream that would never stop. The way he laughed when we asked him if he was scared of the big fire we saw on the news, the night Mom let us wait up for him. The way he would laugh now, if he saw this lopsided excuse for a Christmas tree in his living room.

Of course, I don’t remember that evening twenty-six years ago. I never even knew about it until tonight, when I came home to help my mother trim our tree for the first time without him. It’s the first story she’s told me about Dad since, well, since September 11th.

We all have our ways of grieving. My sister Kelly writes about him in her journal, and her fourth-graders make a big card for a different firehouse or precinct every week. I visit the empty painful spot in the middle of me several times a day, because I have to go through that to find him and feel safe in the world again. Mom, the extrovert, is quiet now. Her voice will return only when the rage has gone, when she can bear to see him smile at her words again, not before.

I rub my shoulder. This long Saturday, with two performances of “The Nutcracker,” plus schlepping that six-foot spruce through the chilly night and pulling all the boxes down from the attic, finally takes its toll.

There’s Advil in the kitchen, Steve,” Mom says, then adds with a wink, “And beer to wash it down.”

Mom always knew her men.

Coming back into the living room with two bottles, I see that she’s got the lights plugged in and twinkling. And, as always, our favorite childhood toys sit on the white felt skirt about the base of the tree. All but one.

Christmas 1982. The smallest boy in my class, I had proudly announced to everyone that when I grew up, I was going to be a fireman, just like my dad. For once my father had not laughed. On Christmas Eve, he solemnly presented me with a big, shiny red toy fire truck with real lights, bells, and even a siren. I saluted him. When he lifted me in a huge bear hug, I saw tears in his eyes.

I saw the same tears when he shook my hand on the day I received my BFA in Dance from Juilliard. Dad had always been my real-life hero. The look on his face that afternoon told me I was his, as well. It was his greatest gift of all to me, though they had been grand and many over the years.

My mother pretends she is finished and starts to clean up. I remove the yellowed tissue paper from my fire engine, lift it from the box, and place it front and center beneath the tree. Mom looks at it and starts to cry, for the first time since they found his body. I hold her tight.

I close my eyes, and stand again on the stage at City Center, awash in brilliant light. With a grand leap I sail across this incandescent firmament, offering a silent prayer to the angel who is my Dad.

I’m still flying.”

Image (c) the author

© 2002 by Linda DiGusta, All Rights Reserved. Originally published online in Gator Springs Gazette and in print in Christmas anthology, "Quilted."